One Hand Clapping


poems (1962-1997),
robert lax (353pp, $25, Wave)


I was introduced to the work of Robert Lax through two friends: the writer David Miller and painter Andrew Bick, although I also came across his name reading Thomas Merton and reading about Ad Reinhardt.  That sentence already shows the ways Lax's work might be considered: the writing of a hermit, writing in a mystical tradition, contemplative work, constructivist, minimalist. Or a mixture of all of those.

John Beer, who has edited this beautifully produced volume for Wave with an eye to getting a representative body of Lax's work back into circulation, mentions and often refutes most of these ideas in his interesting and erudite introduction. He wants the focus to be on the poet's engagement with the world, 'how the poems respond at a fundamental level to the wonder and pathos of existence'; and with how readers respond.

I'm not totally convinced by this argument, it seems to me that the formal constructs Beer tends to dismiss facilitate
the author's and reader's responses. Through repetition, fragmentation, variation and pattern Lax's texts slow the reader down to focus on the language itself. Things change when taken apart, things change when repeated; words laid out sculpturally on the page work differently than the same words typed across the page. There is a musicality to Lax's poems that works best in his long poems where words slowly change, mutate and repeat in a fashion akin to Glass's or Reich's minimalistic music.

In a similar way I want
to see Lax's work in relation to the minimalist visual arts tradition. It clearly does have links to Donald Judd's boxes, to Carl Andre's patterns of differing materials within a room/space; it certainly shares ideas and inspiration with visual art as diverse as Merton's zen ink drawings and Reinhardt's black paintings, repeated grids of almost indistinguishable blacks that require attention and time to see.

In the same way a casual gallery goer will walk past a room full of black Reinhardt paintings, it is easy to ignore Lax's poems, which are often exquisitely simple, in both form and content. They both capture and transcend the moment, they are both serious and playful, contradictory and 'true'. Which is it then, in 'more scales':

 

wind

&
si
lence

si
lence

&
wind

more
wind

than
si
lence

more
si
lence

than
wind

 

more wind or more silence? How ridiculous to even try to quantify such things! But this is the subject of the poem, which goes on to consider other unquantifiables such as dancing & joy, many & one, letters & words, light & air. This poem is formally interesting (its layout on the page), philosophically interesting, playful, and mystical in the way it tries to write about the unknowable. Indeed, when Andrew Bick introduced me to Lax's work it was in the context of 'negative theology', where God can only be defined by what is not known, indeed cannot be known about him.

Of course, what effect his kind of contemplative word play will have on a reader cannot be prescribed or known, but perhaps like zen koans it is enough to know that the moment and the words exist, that these questions can be asked, these ideas considered.

This is extraordinary poetry made from the very stuff of the world around us. It is the nearest I have come to alchemy: gold and light spun from earth, words working in one way at the very limits of experiment and form, yet also working at the centre of human perception and thought, appealing to both intellect and heart.

     Rupert Loydell 2013